Some years ago, in a town east of Havre — very east — the crime rate abruptly soared, then continued to ride high for years as the community was besieged by assaults, drug crimes and burglaries.
The townspeople knew what was happening. They talked about it openly. They told each other to be careful at night.
But they didn’t like others knowing about it. They thought broadcasting the bad news would cast a bad light on their beloved community.
Then, after 10 years, the crimes just stopped.
Committee meetings and an investigation into the mysterious, but welcome, turn of events followed. After offering immunity to suspected criminals, investigators discovered they stopped committing crimes because the media wasn’t reporting them. The local newspaper’s main foci were sports and stories about fundraisers and animals. The suspected criminals were so afflicted by the lack of media attention on their lawlessness they decided to change their ways and stop committing crimes.
This did not happen.
This has never happened.
If this weren’t commentary, my little yarn would be one of the few times the words “fake news” would actually be correctly applied.
Since we launched in May 2018, the Herald has reported several stories that bring to light, or remind the public, of some ugly aspects of our community. We have focused on hard news. And people haven’t always been happy about that.
One of the most common complaints against the media is that “it’s negative,” and that it goes out of its way to report “negative stuff.” This is part of being in the news business: There are lots of armchair journalists out there.
A quick perusal of the Herald archives will show that we have our share of puff pieces and good news. Today, we ran a story about a dog that was shot with an arrow but is on his way to recovery thanks to several communities and citizens who responded quickly and generously.
But I do concede that a great deal of what we report, maybe more than half, leans toward the not-so-pleasant types of goings on. There are a few reasons for that.
But first, I’d like to touch on the notion of “negative news.”
Negative News Is A Misnomer
Negative news does not exist. It’s a misnomer and it usually relies on several misconceptions, one of the most common being that reporters search every nook and cranny for the sleaziest, grimiest, most slithery piece of news, passing up legions of legitimate stories along the way. The truth is usually quite the opposite. When controversial or bad things happen, our phones start pinging and ringing with messages from people in the fray or those with knowledge of it.
Another problem with the term “negative news” is that it’s an emotional description of something that is, by nature, based on facts and the most available and reliable sources of information. (This last aspect — most available and reliable sources — gets a little sticky sometimes, as critics sometimes use a story’s sources to invalidate the reporting, usually stories they don’t like).
Saying news is negative is like taking a big gulp of spoiled milk and saying, “Boy, that is some negative milk!” While it may bum you out, it’s more accurate to say that you just drank some bad milk.
News is news. First and foremost, it’s information about our world, our community. Depending on the editorial team, some of it is packaged better than others.
Some news is obviously bad, some of it is good, and a great deal of it, probably most of it, depends on the reader’s worldview (this would be the equivalent of buttermilk). One man’s expose on the crime in his community is welcomed as useful information or a wakeup call. Another, however, might only see it as a hit piece on his hometown.
Our emotional reaction to the news, as inevitable as it is, is not as important as what we do with it.
A few years ago, I did a report on dilapidated, vacant properties in town and a segment of mysterious owners who didn’t seem to care. Now, years later, a small movement is working to implement regulations meant to induce the owners of those with disheveled properties, not just the mysterious ones, to either repair or sell them to others who will. This has happened in other communities around the country, so why not here, the movement believes.
Who knows where this effort will lead, if anywhere. The legal logistics pose a high hurdle.
But the point is that some people were not happy about those stories. While others saw value in such information, there were folks who thought our reporting on Sunrise was unneeded “negative” news. It was overblown. They murmured that “it made the town look bad.” It cast a negative light on Havre and could affect business, they said, as if someone could drive down First Street or Fifth Avenue and miss the year-round community haunted houses.
It’s not unusual for organizations, educational districts and municipalities to try to curate the information that is broadcast about them. It’s the norm. When the news is good, the press releases fly off the press before the ink in the email is dry. There’s little danger of good news not getting exposure.
But getting to the bottom of unpleasant goings-on takes work. When something nefarious or scandalous is happening, it’s almost natural to want to keep it under wraps. Those same organization’s spokespersons are significantly harder to reach.
Bad News Is Good News
Information is power. History and current events provide plenty of evidence that those with the most information are those most empowered.
News is often bad because quality journalism shines a light on problems. This is a universal concept. Light disinfects. Our nation’s Founders didn’t emphasize the importance of a free press because they wanted newspapers to report about community parades and backpack programs. They knew a free press is important for a population who wants to govern itself.
What’s more important for the public to know: The problems those parading towns face or how many floats wheeled through? What’s more valuable? News about donated school supplies or a story on local poverty and how it affects student learning, explaining why there is a need for donated school supplies in the first place?
A news outlet with adequate resources would report both. But that’s becoming an endangered species: newspapers that aren’t struggling.
There was a time when a good community newspaper did it all, the good, the bad and the real ugly. But times have changed. The digital revolution has disrupted everything, especially advertising revenue.
We also live in a time when more people believe news should be free. It shouldn’t and it’s not. No one is entitled to anything that is the result of someone else’s genuine, ethical labor. There’s always a cost, it’s just a matter of who pays. The Herald, which provides news for free, is made possible by our advertising partners, loyal contributors, and lots of volunteer hours.
The bottom line is news industries have been decimated, and because of that coverage has been scaled back. And this is why we report the way we do. The Herald has very limited resources and we often focus on hard news or other news that hasn’t been reported. With three news outlets in Havre, we see little reason to report what others are already doing. There’s no reason for everyone to publish a check-passing press release. Many people I know subscribe and read all regional news sources. That’s the way to do it.
The good news for people who view the news as the enemy is that the news industry continues to suffer. For many years now, the number of news gatherers has dwindled by the hundreds, and as a result, communities all over the country have less information. Many communities have lost their newspapers altogether. Others are a skeleton of their former selves, reporting less and doing so while going through a perpetual revolving door of underpaid reporters usually unfamiliar with the region.
News antagonists may get their wish. But you know what they say: Be careful what you wish for.
A community without a news source gives free rein to corruption and dark secrets. It allows corruption to fester until, if the community is lucky, the sleazebaggery reaches a boiling point that draws federal investigators. Sometimes that never happens.
If you have legitimate criticism or just comments, tell us. Write a letter to the editor, email, call or message us. We’ve made all those options very easy and we’ve responded to every complaint, email or message. Let us know what we may have missed. You may be on to something. The news is gathered by imperfect people and as in every other profession in the world, we make mistakes.
But please be clear, accurate and civil.
One thing’s for sure: No community is worse for knowing too much about its stains. Where there are problems, morale is already low. The company culture is already toxic before a group of employees approaches the local paper to talk about it. The murmuring in the municipality has been there for years before we start getting reports of mismanagement. The community crime is already happening. People are already hurting. The stats only confirm it.
But bad things do not get better by ignoring them. Reporting on problems does not summon a cloud over our communities. The cloud was already there.
There is no such thing as negative news. There is only news.
Editor’s note: We encourage people who have thoughts on the matter to send letters to the editor at email@example.com.
Paul Dragu is an award-winning investigative journalist and editor of The Havre Herald. Write to Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org